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Saturn's Ion is less couped up

Longer, wider and taller than its SC predecessor, the 2003 Quad offers more room to stretch in and a smoother ride

August 06, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

Out with the old and in with the new.

Last fall, Saturn's 2003 Ion sedan replaced the S-Series sedan, and in April the '03 Ion coupe replaced the SC coupe.

In addition to all new shapes for the plastic body panels, the Ion family at Saturn now is built off a new, larger Delta platform, which will be shared with the replacement for the Chevrolet Cavalier for 2005.

The new platform means the Ion coupe is substantially bigger than its SC predecessor: about 6 inches longer, 2 inches wider and 2 inches taller.

The bigger dimensions mean added room to stretch inside the cabin as well as added length and width to provide better ride and handling.

And because the Saturn shares platforms with the replacement for the Cavalier, the new Chevy compact will be longer, wider and taller -- three dimensions it needed to improve upon, just as the Saturn coupe did.

The Ion Quad coupe has rear-access doors on both sides. Its predecessor pioneered one rear-access door on the driver's side in the 1999 model year.

The age-old rap against a coupe is access to the back seat. With two access doors, which open after the front doors, the problem is solved.

Those access doors come in handy for tossing a briefcase or duffel bag into the back or having the kids slip in or out. But adult entry and exit, as well as comfort, aren't world class.

But the new dimensions have their benefits, especially those additional 2 inches in width, which means the coupe takes up more room on the pavement so it is in more control of what goes on beneath it. That means a more cushioned ride with less up-and-down motion and fewer unnecessary gyrations over uneven roads.

Although the Saturn Ion looks sporty and the suspension has been given a sports tuning for better handling in corners and turns, this is an economy coupe that delivers good mileage.

It isn't a sports car but rather a sporty-looking car better appreciated for passing the pumps than for sitting flat and accelerating into and out of curves on country roads.

It helps that the 15-inch radial tires that were standard on the SC coupe have been upgraded to 16-inch treads with a wider paw print on the Ion 3 (still 15 inches on the Ion 2). But this is a $15,000 economy car, not a $25,000 racer. Accept its limitations, and have fun.

The 1.9-liter, four-cylinder engine that powered the SC was rated at 124 horsepower and 122 pounds-feet of torque and delivered what many considered anemic takeoffs. The 1.9 has been replaced by a 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder rated at 140 horsepower and 142 pounds-feet of torque for more energetic performance when leaving the light.

Yet the mileage is impressive: 26 miles per gallon city and 33 mpg highway with standard five-speed manual, or 24/32 mpg with the optional VTi continuously variable transmission that offers an infinite number of gears.

Saturn offers the Ion coupe in versions called the 2 and top-of-the-line 3, which we tested with the five-speed manual.

The most attractive feature of either, of course, is the plastic body that doesn't rust and resists those parking lot dents and dings. To keep a Saturn looking new for years basically requires an occasional bath.

The new Delta architecture is stiffer, and that means less noise and vibration. Hydraulic engine mounts and dual balance shafts on the Ecotec engine are designed to reduce the problem with every Saturn since General Motors put the line on sale in 1991: engine noise. You experience less noise and vibration, but no four-cylinder is whisper quiet.

Saturn distinguishes the 3 from the 2 by offering more upgrades, such as the larger 16-inch radials plus a convenience package including power windows and mirrors, cruise control and remote keyless entry as standard. That package runs $825 for the 2.

The 3 also offers AM-FM stereo with CD player-cassette as standard, the 2 an AM-FM stereo minus the cassette. And you can opt for $700 leather seats in the 3 but not in the 2.

Base price of the Ion 3 is $15,530 ($14,030 for the 2). To complete the package, add $400 for the anti-lock brakes and traction control package, because Saturn steadfastly refuses to offer them as standard to keep the base price down.

If you favor an automatic transmission, the VTi runs a hefty $900. And to give it a sportier appearance, add the deck lid spoiler for $250. To dress it up, you can add leather seats and, for $80, front and rear floor mats.

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